Australia hosted aboriginal populations since prehistory. However technologically advanced civilizations (in comparison) lived nearby, in Indonesia, Polynesia and New Guinea.

Why was it not colonized by those people? Is there any evidence of interaction/invasions?

  • 7
    Why distinct things did not happen belongs to the trickier questions in history ;)
    – Hauser
    Oct 22, 2012 at 13:30
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    I'm no expert, so I'll add one minor detail as a comment: According to Wikipedia, some of the population in Northern Australia had "cultural and genetical" links to New Guinea, see en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Torres_Strait_Islanders .
    – Jørgen
    Oct 22, 2012 at 18:15
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    @Noldorin - as noted in "Guns,Germs&Steel", Maori were not even remotely peaceful and non-expansionist. Heck for that matter, recall inter-tribal warfare in NZ. Don't know much about Fiji.
    – DVK
    Nov 3, 2012 at 23:54
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    @DVK: I hate that that book pervades amateur/layman history and anthropology so thoroughly these days. Indeed, scholarly criticism of it has been far-reaching and severe in some cases. Certainly, it cannot be used as an only source. I maintain my point that the Maori were not particularly warlike in the (distant?) past... though perhaps I have misremembered completely!
    – Noldorin
    Nov 4, 2012 at 1:00
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    @Noldorin - I was referring to specific historical facts mentioned in the book and not general conclusions that you may or may not agree with.
    – DVK
    Nov 4, 2012 at 1:05

8 Answers 8


Fire-hardened spears, hardwood clubs and maces and shark-tooth "swords" were pretty much state-of-the-art for both Aboriginal and Polynesian cultures. The Polynesians had the advantage of advanced stonemasonry and oceanic navigation, neither of which would do them much good in a war of conquest, the native Australians had a spear-thrower, the woomera, which vastly improves the range and power of a thrown spear.

More, Polynesian wars were mostly local affairs, precipitated by cultural conflicts and resource allocation rather than wars of conquest.

The Europeans had steel, gunpowder, horses and ships capable of carrying immense loads of cargo and troops, and a will to conquer and claim anything they found. Completely different ballgame.

As for Austronesian people, like Indonesians, it is difficult to answer. I can really only speculate:

  1. The trade winds were very strongly against them (see: this map)
  2. The Maritime SE Asian cultures really only interacted with others from the same culture group, unless for trade
  3. Australians and New Guineans of the time had neither spices nor mineral or metal goods, so trade missions (and perhaps colonies) were considered futile.
  • Although I do like your answer, and find it convincing for the Polynesian side of the matter, I still wonder why Austronesian people, like Indonesians, did not advance into New Guinea and then Australia. +1 anyway, also for the sources. Thanks!
    – astabada
    Oct 30, 2012 at 10:46
  • @astabada - Yeah, that side of it is proving trickier. I can really only speculate: 1) The trade winds were very strongly against them (see: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Map_prevailing_winds_on_earth.png ), 2) The Maritime SE Asian cultures really only interacted with others from the same culture group, unless for trade and 3) Australians and New Guineans of the time had neither spices nor mineral or metal goods, so trade missions (and perhaps colonies) were considered futile. Nov 5, 2012 at 14:40
  • Thanks a lot, this is really an interesting answer. I will wait a bit more but if nobody comes up with a better one, I will definitely chose yours as the most appropriate. Can you add your last comment to the answer?
    – astabada
    Nov 6, 2012 at 15:37

People from what is modern day Indonesia were visiting northern Australia to collect and process trepang (sea-cucumber or sea slug) for centuries before European settlement. These people are generally referred to as Macassan (or Makassan). The first European to circumnavigate Australia, Matthew Flinders, encountered Macassans processing trepang. Relationships with the Aboriginal people were mostly positive as the Macassans stayed for a few months per year and returned home as the winds changed to trade their product with the Chinese. This information has been extensively documented

Gordon McLaughlan claims that pre-Maori Polynesian navigators (referred to as Lapita) "landed on the coast of Australia but encountered an alien landscape and long-established inhabitants" (p.18 - A Short History of New Zealand - Penguin, 2004). I have no idea as to whether this claim is supported by the historical record or whether it is simply an assumption based on the incredible sea-faring exploits of the Lapita.


Australia was a lot less hospitable area than Polynesians, Indonesians, and other islanders were used to.

Although technically in the tropics, the fact that people lived on islands meant that the sea was a moderating influence on the climate, and "temperate" weather crops such as breadfuirt and sweet potatoes could grow on them. Also, the sea provided a ready source of fish.


Not so Australia, which being continental, had a less temperate climate. Jungles were thicker, crops scarcer, and food harder to find. As mentioned in other answers above, the "Australians" had more potent weapons, probably because of the need to hunt mammals, rather than fish.

It's possible that Pacific Islanders found themselves in Australia from time to time. Most probably did not survive. Perhaps a few survivors were absorbed into the local populations. What did NOT happen was people visiting Australia, leaving, and then saying, "Let's go back there with the friends and family.


I can only agree with some of the points, as I have an extensive understanding of Austronesian migratory history but am still vague on Australasian. My only contribution is to add that Australia was not so much a lost continent but rather a vast and imposing one which was not entirely cut of from southern migration. It was part of PNG during the ice age and the two land masses share a common genus. Migrants still continued to flow in to Australia but in small groups who simply blended into the existing population.

In the southern regions there is evidence that many of the aboriginal population have cultural and ethnic ties to their Southern roots as fishermen and canoe building coastal communities. However Lapita and other Austronesian's were strictly a island colonizing coastal peoples who had specific destinations in mind, isolated unpopulated small land masses which they could farm and colonize. Culturally and ethnically they integrated with existing trading communities such as PNG and probably the southern western coastal parts of Australia but a large land mass had very little appeal to their mindset.

Obviously, groups in Indonesia were trading and taking resources from coastal Australia but were more interested in their own regional concerns and had no particular drive to colonize this harsh and seemingly desolate interior that was probably inhabited by territorial tribal groups of people.

It seems strange to me that such a small divide between Indonesia and Australia would have such little momentum in terms of their contact but little was coming out of Australia as opposed to the vast trade network that had formed from the Southern trade roots and their spice empires. It's not so much about land as trade it would seem, which makes sense but perhaps more historical evidence will be discovered.


The austronesian were great mariners and this brought them to far corner of the globe as far as Easter island and Madagascar. But why not Australia which lies south of Indonesia? I think the most plausible answer is because its already inhabited and when austronesian made landings, to Australia, it was by chance and composed of a handful of individuals. They stood little chance against the hostile aborigines even if they possessed superior weaponry. Furthermore Australia is a large island, any subsequent waves of chance landings would have occurred far apart from each others and not making it possible for the austronesian to form meaningful numbers to compete against the aborigines as compared to uninhibited islands. These earlier austronesian would have been outnumbered and decimated.


I agree that scattered Austronesian landings on the big island continent may well have prevented this culture from building up any significant numbers to thrive. But I don't think it would be due to any hostility of Aborigines that they wouldn't. I'd say that the locals would expect some sort of compensation like seafood, for the imposition on their lands, and this kind of arrangement over time could have lead to intermarriages and the Austronesians blending in with the aborigines. Future DNA studies may be able to answer this.

  • 2
    This seems to be a set of assertions & opinions, not an answer to the question.
    – MCW
    Oct 1, 2014 at 10:35

I don't really have any sources for this because I can't seem to find any. My answer is what I think makes logical sense given the situation in these countries.

Territorial expansion is often driven by a need for more resources, or by competition between neighboring peoples, etc. If you do not have enough food, or access to water then you as a people have to take it by force. However, the climates of Indonesia, Papa New Guinea, and Polynesia are tropical. They provide ample flora and fauna to support a people. They also contain lots of coconut trees which are sometimes referred to as the Tree of Life. To expand into Australia you would need sea worthy ships which wasn't really a part of the needs of the people at the time.

The point is that the peoples that came from this society thrived in their environment. The land provided them literally everything they needed to survive. There wasn't a need to go off and try to discover other lands because they had everything they needed right there. Not to mention when you have perfect weather almost every day of the year why would you want to go find some place else?

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    Umm. The Mesoamericans and Classical Indians were in tropical climates, and had noooo problems initiating wars of conquest. Oral tradition is usually captured in an ethnography these days - please reference one to back up your assertions. Oct 29, 2012 at 17:36
  • @RISwampYankee I clarified my answer a little bit to add in that there may not have been a need for ship building technology, and also removed my reference to oral traditions playing a part.
    – ihtkwot
    Oct 29, 2012 at 18:19
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    They had ships that took colonists (with animals, seeds, tools etc) through all of Melanesia, Polynesia, backwards down to New Zealand, etc. Ships to reach Australia would never have been an issue. Dec 26, 2016 at 2:30

Australia was colonised by people from New Guinea while the two islands were still joined (up to 25,000 years ago). Evidence of human habitation in eastern New Guinea dates back to 40,000 years. The negroid ie small frizzy haired people were the first Australians. Their remnants can be found in the rainforests of northern Queensland and in Tasmania.

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    The two islands were still joined up to 25,000 years ago? Do you have a reference for this?
    – Drux
    Mar 2, 2014 at 10:58
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    @Drux - During the Ice Age, lots of land routes to places existed that are no more (see "Sahul" - the continent as it was during the Pleistocene) Oct 1, 2014 at 14:49

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